Written by Zack Beauchamp
Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown and all of the deadly dysfunction it represents, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy to for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.
But you’d be wrong. We have every reason to believe that 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind.
Contrary to what you might have heard, virtually all of the most important forces that determine what make people’s lives good — the things that determine how long they live, and whether they live happily and freely — are trending in an extremely happy direction. While it’s possible that this progress could be reversed by something like runaway climate change, the effects will have to be dramatic to overcome the extraordinary and growing progress we’ve made in making the world a better place.
Here are the five big reasons why:
1. Fewer people are dying young, and more are living longer.
The greatest story in recent human history is the simplest: we’re winning the fight against death. “There is not a single country in the world where infant or child mortality today is not lower than it was in 1950,” writes Angus Deaton, a Princeton economist who works on global health issues.
The most up-to-date numbers on global health, the 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) statistical compendium, confirm Deaton’s estimation. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of children who died before their fifth birthday dropped by almost half. Measles deaths declined by 71 percent, and both tuberculosis and maternal deaths by half again. HIV, the modern plague, is also being held back, with deaths from AIDS-related illnesses down by 24 percent since 2005.
In short, fewer people are dying untimely deaths. And that’s not only true in rich countries: life expectancy has gone up between 1990 and 2011 in every WHO income bracket. The gains are even more dramatic if you take the long view: global life expectancy was 47 in the early 1950s, but had risen to 70 — a 50 percent jump — by 2011. For even more perspective, the average Briton in 1850 — when the British Empire had reached its apex — was 40. The average person today should expect to live almost twice as long as the average citizen of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country in 1850.
In real terms, this means millions of fewer dead adults and children a year, millions fewer people who spend their lives suffering the pains and unfreedoms imposed by illness, and millions more people spending their twilight years with loved ones. And the trends are all positive — “progress has accelerated in recent years in many countries with the highest rates of mortality,” as the WHO rather bloodlessly put it.
What’s going on? Obviously, it’s fairly complicated, but the most important drivers have been technological and political innovation. The Enlightenment-era advances in the scientific method got people doing high-quality research, which brought us modern medicine and the information technologies that allow us to spread medical breakthroughs around the world at increasingly faster rates. Scientific discoveries also fueled the Industrial Revolution and the birth of modern capitalism, giving us more resources to devote to large-scale application of live-saving technologies. And the global spread of liberal democracy made governments accountable to citizens, forcing them to attend to their health needs or pay the electoral price.
We’ll see the enormously beneficial impact of these two forces, technology and democracy, repeatedly throughout this list, which should tell you something about the foundations of human progress. But when talking about improvements in health, we shouldn’t neglect foreign aid. Nations donating huge amounts of money out of an altruistic interest in the welfare of foreigners is historically unprecedented, and while not all aid has been helpful, health aid has been a huge boon.
Even Deaton, who wrote one of 2013′s harshest assessments of foreign aid, believes “the case for assistance to fight disease such as HIV/AIDS or smallpox is strong.” That’s because these programs have demonstrably saved lives — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a 2003 program pushed by President Bush, paid for anti-retroviral treatment for over 5.1 million people in the poor countries hardest-hit by the AIDS epidemic.
So we’re outracing the Four Horseman, extending our lives faster than pestilence, war, famine, and death can take them. That alone should be enough to say the world is getting better.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may
not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.